In Las Vegas, excess and fantasy bleed into tragedy

In Sin City, people often do bad things to themselves.

Rather than deal with their lapses – moral, financial, marital – there’s a ready-made marketing slogan to fall back on: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

It’s a way of permitting yourself to indulge, and Vegas casinos – built on a manic dynamic of gambling, sex and food consumption – make their owners billions of bucks off this mantra.

Although living a long 60-mile desert drive from the city, Stephen Paddock spent most of his time there gambling. How did a seemingly happy habitual casino player conjure up serial murder by killing and injuring hundreds using enough firepower to equip a small army?

As an urban sociologist, I’ve written about how Las Vegas operates as a “themed environment,” one that channels the power of fantasy to promote a form of boundless, excessive indulgence.

We may never know Stephen Paddock’s true motives. But what if his horrific act were to be interpreted through this lens of fantasy and indulgence?

The power of theme

The famous French literary critic Roland Barthes was the first to discuss the multilayered power of “the sign” as a myth that can project multiple meanings, while uniting them under the umbrella of a “megatheme.” For example, he saw the Eiffel Tower as a structure that fused early industrialization with modernity, as well as the international symbol of Paris.

The American semiotician Charles S. Peirce had a similar name for this phenomenon; he called it an “icon.” Think of the American flag. It means different things to different people and, simultaneously, the same thing to millions.

Any themed environment, from Disneyland to the Olive Garden, uses an overarching message to unite consumers around a single purpose, whether it’s a reverie of youthful innocence or the prospect of an abundant, family-style Italian dinner.

These signals – conveyed and repeated through architecture, design, advertisements, logos and slogans – have the power to attract large audiences in a way so that each individual can find something meaningful in the consumer experience.

Eat the most, spend the most, win the most…

I argue that in Las Vegas, the sign of “excess” is the unifying element of its themed environment. And I’ve compared its culture to that of Dubai, a Middle Eastern city that has experienced rapid development over the past 20 years.

Yet the two are distinct. In Dubai, excess is purely symbolic and simplistic, with every material object directly alluding to it. Hotel rooms cost thousands of dollars a night. They come with gold faucets, gold beds, gold bedding – gold everywhere.